Friday, Dec. 18, 2009 | 2:47 p.m.
Lady Gaga out-Cher-ed Cher, made Cirque du Soleil and Britney's "Circus" tour look like county fair carnivals, and made New Year's Eve in Las Vegas anticlimactic. The first of the pop phenomenon's two sold-out shows at The Pearl concert venue at the Palms rendered all previous showbiz obsolete. Let's hope one of our Strip moguls has the sense and foresight to try to convince Gaga to keep her "Monster Ball" tour right here in Las Vegas — and make the rest of the world come to her.
A mutant showgirl, Gaga turned everyone at The Pearl on Thursday night — man, woman and child — instantly, ecstatically gay (except maybe the macho guys who were using their girlfriends as human shields). For two hours, everything was permitted, and the prevailing style and sensibility was not just fantastically fey and artistically outré, but creatively, aggressively eccentric.
Gaga Syndrome was apparent a good hour before opening act Semi Precious Weapons even took the stage. The preshow action was in The Pearl's packed lobby, where fans and photographers created a swirling, sparkling scene like a Vogue fashion shoot circa 2020. The Gaga gang — and they're not all kids — are not merely imitative of their idol, like Madonna-wannabes, but are inspired and challenged by her Dada, do-it-yourself aesthetic. In their homemade couture, Gaga's fans are performing right back at her and for each other. They all know how to pose, and they assume each one of them is a star, a fashion designer and a runway model, too.
Like the goddess Athena, Gaga emerged this year as if from nowhere — a fully-formed superstar with all the elements of an international, intergalactic cult already in place: a manifesto, a salute (a raised claw-hand), a pet name for her followers ("my little monsters") and those infernally unshakeable pop hooks, burrowing like earworms, poisoned ear candy, as addictive as Tetris.
The Lady's image and sound is insistently, deliciously artificial, even anti-natural. And she has the brazen, hilarious hubris to elbow herself right into the top echelon of superstars — an entirely earned arrogance telegraphed by her choice of preshow music: all Michael Jackson hits, played at club-level volume, turning The Pearl into the happiest disco.
In her shifting guises, Gaga brings to mind a distaff Ziggy Stardust, but the Lady's appetite for deconstruction doesn't stop there. A pop pack rat, Gaga gobbles supermodels, pop stars, drag queens and movie monsters. There are glimpses of grotesque beauty and oblique sexuality, hybrids of Blondie and Barbarella, Divine and Liberace, Warhol's Candy Darling and H.R. Giger's Alien Queen, Michael Jackson and, of course, Madonna.
"I don't know why you even come to my show," Gaga wryly chided her "little monsters," who avidly recorded every moment, creating a sea of tiny glowing screens. "You're just gonna watch it on YouTube anyway." Gaga didn't allow professional photographers at the event, but apparently endorsed the viral dissemination of her image via her fans. Which is exactly how Lady Gaga became a household name in the first place.
Onstage, as in her extravagantly outlandish videos, Gaga's impact is primarily visual. The Monster Ball is a series of vignettes, blinding first impressions, each eclipsing the other. Framed in scrims and screens while centered in a perspective box, which allows 3-D effects and confuses the viewer's sense of scale, she first materialized gliding on a conveyor-belt catwalk as a mannequin in a suit of lights. Surrounding her was a flexible phalanx of dancers as faceless alien grays or demonic imps.
"I created the Monster Ball so you would always have a place to go," Gaga told her audience. "Tonight, all the freaks are outside." (With her following of fashion-conscious misfits, might Gaga be the Morrissey of disco?)
"I'm kind of like Tinkerbell," she said later, lying prone on the stage. "You know how Tinkerbell will die if you don't clap for her? DO YOU WANT ME TO DIE?" Even when she gestured in sincerity, Gaga's voice was frosted with deadpan artifice, a coy parody of Madonna's imitation British accent.
Oh yeah, the music: Pristine and titanically loud, Gaga's signature sound is an updating of Eurodisco and the pop genre known earlier this decade as electroclash. It's a Venn diagram of ABBA and Depeche Mode, derivative of the preposterously danceable dirty bubblegum of Fischerspooner, Peaches and Scissor Sisters.
Her hit-making facility is no fluke: Gaga works with premium producers, including Max Martin, the infallible pop mastermind who constructed Britney's "Hit Me Baby..." and the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way." Her songs feign cultural commentary about fame, sex and money, but her oeuvre is crystallized in one of her first hits, the self-explanatory "Just Dance," and in "Love Games": "Let's have some fun, this beat is sick..."
As if to prove she's not just a self-aware Liza Minnelli with bone-deep beats, Gaga slowed it down, contorting herself at a piano that looked like a charred, black Louise Nevelson sculpture, to deliver her Big Ballad, "Speechless," using her high-heeled pump as a third hand on the keys.
A fast-forward gallery of funhouse images: An exhortation to the crowd to "Show your teeth!", Gaga's "Teeth" played like a Francis Bacon painting choreographed by Bob Fosse. For "Paparazzi," Gaga's head sprouted 50-foot braids of rope, a pop-star Rapunzel imprisoned by the Fame Monster.
Now upholstered in black vinyl, now nearly nude in a red patent leather bikini, she bounced through "Boys Boys Boys," backed by a squadron of skinny, shirtless, snake-hipped leather boys. She did a grandiose piano-based slow burn on "Poker Face," then returned with the full dance version of the ma-ma-ma-maddeningly infectious chorus.
By the time the show culminated with her current hit, "Bad Romance," Gaga hardly needed to order her acolytes to "Put your claws up! Jump, monsters!"
Bouncing and jumping, claws raised and pumping, they sang along to "Rah-rah-ooh-la-la" with the bloody fervor of hooligans roaring soccer chants at the World Cup final. A really gay World Cup final.
"What I hate more than money is the truth," she announced at one point. Which pretty much encapsulates the meaning of Gaga — inauthenticity as the new authenticity. And that makes her perfect for Vegas.